Amelia is nine. It's Christmas Eve, and she can't sleep.
She lies in her bed, threadbare and stained covers pulled up to her chin, and she waits, looking at herself in the tiny mirror she keeps under her pillow. She waits for the dawn, because the pain in her ribs won't let her sleep. Dad was drunk and angry last night because she was stupid, and when he walked out, Mom had punished Amelia. She had punished Amelia for making Dad angry.
Amelia doesn't like Christmas. They're worse at Christmas.
Amelia lies awake in her bed, her ribs hurting. She doesn't cry. Crying might wake them up, and then they'd be mad, so no tears fill her vision. That's routine. She hasn't cried in years.
So Amelia walks through her life with nothing in her eyes, the spark torn from them. Sometimes, she wonders if this is what it feels like to be dead. But she's alive, and inside her, all the good is being scooped out, piece by piece by piece. It used to hurt, and she used to be afraid, but it's routine, just routine, now.
She can see her reflection in the tiny doll's mirror, the one she hides, and what she sees is a pale, quiet girl with dark, dark rings under those empty eyes. She sees this reflection in the expressions of other people, and when she does, a feeling wells in her, like being angry and sleepy and wanting to hide. This feeling wells in her now as she gazes at herself, but for this feeling, she has no name.
Amelia lies in her bed, with her mirror and her eyes and her ribs, and then she hears something on the roof. Something heavy. Something outside of the routine, and for the first time in a long time, Amelia feels a brief stab of fear. She hides her mirror. Something is on the roof.
She listens, because the sound is not routine and because the sound is new and because the sound makes her afraid. Amelia has eyes like an old woman, but she's yet a child, her mind open to new things. She listens.
The sound of the rooftop is heavy and regular, like many strong men walking. And there is a slight skidding noise, like something being dragged across the shingles of her little house. Amelia hopes the roof doesn't fall in. Dad says the roof will fall in any day, and while Amelia isn't scared of it, it would make him angry. When Dad's car broke, he was very angry, and it was a bad week for Amelia. And while Amelia isn't afraid of the badness — it's routine — she doesn't welcome it, either.
Amelia sits up in her bed, and the noise stops. It just stops completely, replaced by the sound of winter winds rattling her drafty window. She can feel the cool breeze through her pajamas, the hand-me-downs she got from her cousin Steve. Her room is cold, and the blankets usually keep her warm, but she stands up on the bed, anyway. She listens.
Now, there's a heavy sound on the roof, a clump-clump-clump. Amelia knows that sound. It's the sound Dad's boots make on the porch in winter, the sound of heavy soles falling on snow, and for a second, Amelia thinks Dad is on the roof. But, no, she can still hear Dad snoring in his bedroom, and besides, those footsteps aren't Dad's. Amelia knows Dad's footsteps very well. She learned to listen for them a long time ago. How they sound when Dad is happy. How they sound when Dad is drunk, or stoned. In the private language of Amelia's mind, there are many words for Dad's footsteps, each shaded with a slightly different meaning.
The footsteps on the roof are not Dad's, and once again, Amelia is afraid. Amelia watches television, and she knows that the world is filled with people who hurt other people. And so Amelia does something she hasn't done since she was six — she goes to wake up Dad.
Dad doesn't take any shit. He's told Amelia that, and Amelia believes him. He doesn't take any shit from anyone, especially Mom and Amelia. Sometimes, he comes home with bruises. Amelia can tell when somebody's tried to give Dad shit, and how well his response went. If he's angry, the person cheated and Dad lost the fight. If he's happy, then he usually doesn't get angry for a day or two, and neither does Mom. They get drunk, but they don't mind Amelia staying away, and they don't hit each other, and that's okay. Amelia thinks that maybe if she wakes up Dad, she won't have to take any shit from him tomorrow, especially if he beats up the person on the roof.
She crawls out of bed, bare feet chilled on the wooden floor. She walks out of her room, grit from the floor dirt scraping lightly against her soles. She walks down the hallway, mustering her courage. She can hear the boots on the roof, moving away from her, heading towards the other side of the little house.
Amelia cautiously knocks on the door to Mom and Dad's bedroom, but there is no answer. Dad still snores. She pushes open the door, taking in the smells of the room, the thick, cloying scent of beer, sweat and cigarettes. She looks at the jumble on the bed, Dad and Mom under the covers, never touching. They don't have to, since Dad bought the big bed from the old man down the street. It takes up most of their room, the big bed. Dad didn't buy the old man's dresser, the one the old man said was good for a kid. Dad says he'll get Amelia a dresser someday, and she thinks she'd like that, since her clothes get dirty being stacked on the floor all the time.
She approaches the side of the bed, and calls for Dad. He doesn't move. He's hard to wake up when he's been drinking. She calls for Mom. Mom doesn't answer, and Amelia is surprised. Even when Mom's been drinking, she sleeps lightly. Amelia plays quietly when Mom's napping in the afternoon, because Mom gets very angry when Amelia acts stupid and wakes her up from her nap.
Amelia doesn't try to touch them to wake them up. The last time she did that, Dad hit her so hard that she couldn't go to school for a few days. Mom called and said Amelia had the flu. Then Mom explained who Amelia was to her teacher. Amelia wasn't surprised. There are a lot of kids in Amelia's class, and quiet little girls don't attract much notice. Amelia doesn't like to be noticed.
Amelia is thinking about that, how she doesn't like to be seen by anyone, and she feels something that she can't name. A feeling like being sleepy and sad, but that feeling goes away when she hears a muffled thump from the living room.
She whirls, her breath catching in her throat, and now she feels real fear. But because she's still a child, there is also interest, and it's no surprise to Amelia when she starts to walk, quiet as quiet can be, towards the front room.
Amelia creeps down the hallway like she sometimes did when Dad's car pulled into the driveway late at night, before it broke. She'd sneak from her bedroom to peek out the front window, so she could decide whether tonight was a night where he'd be angry if she was up, or be angry if she was asleep, or be angry just because. Amelia is secretly proud of how quiet she can be.
The hallway is dark, but the lights from the street illuminate the living room. There is a small plastic Christmas tree, with a few broken branches, on the kitchen table. In Amelia's house, the kitchen and the living room run together. Her house isn't big. Amelia can hear heavy, regular breathing, and hesitant movements. A sound like the garbage bag makes when Mom takes it outside on Monday mornings.
Amelia creeps down the hallway, a little girl pretending to be a shadow and doing a good job of it, and finally, she hides behind the laundry hamper at the end of the hall, near the bathroom. The laundry hamper is empty tonight, since Mom hardly ever fills it. Mom likes to just leave stuff on the floor, until Dad gets mad. Mom blames Amelia, but Dad doesn't take her shit. Dad tells Mom that she needs to do something about Amelia, and so the mess is Mom's fault, anyway. Then Mom gets angry at Amelia, and hits her, but the clothes are still on the floor when she's done.
So the laundry hamper is empty, and it's not solid, it's got holes criss-crossing the middle of it, and Amelia looks through the holes.
She has a very hard time not gasping out loud when the old man steps in front of the hamper at the end of the hall.
Amelia knows this old man. She's never met him, but she's heard of him. Dad told her, four years ago, that this old man wasn't real and that Amelia was a stupid baby and that if this old man was real, why didn't she have any fucking presents? And Amelia agreed with Dad, because she didn't have any presents, but in her secret heart, Amelia knew she didn't have any presents because she was so very, very stupid, and so very, very bad.
Because of this secret and painful knowledge, Amelia still believes.
The old man looks down at her, and tilts his head. He adjusts the big red bag on his shoulder, and kneels, slowly maneuvering his bulk down to look at Amelia through the plastic mesh. He smiles, and there is something in his smile. It's not a happy smile. It looks like the smile her bus driver, Mr. McKitterick, gave her once, a smile that was sad on the inside. Amelia doesn't know what you call that — for that, she has no name.
When the old man speaks, his voice has a funny accent that Amelia hasn't ever heard before. The old man asks Amelia if she knows who he is, and Amelia nods. The old man asks Amelia if she's scared, and Amelia nods. The old man tells Amelia not to be afraid, and there's something in his little blue eyes, something in that sad, sad smile, and Amelia nods. She won't be afraid. The old man asks Amelia if she'll come out, and cautiously, Amelia does. The old man stands then, and he's so tall, so big, he towers over her in crimson and white, and he holds out his hands, hands thick and strong and gnarled with age, and Amelia smiles for the first time when she sees his big red mittens hanging from strings at his wrists. Amelia takes the old man's hands.
The old man looks down at Amelia for a long moment, and then he makes her an offer.
Amelia looks up at the old man, and then around at her little house. She looks down at her dirty bare feet, and then back up at the old man. Her hesitant, answering smile frames a feeling from deep in her heart, a feeling like happiness and sadness and like maybe it might be okay, his offer. Amelia doesn't know what to call this feeling. For that, she has no name.
The old man lifts her in his great arms, then, and carries her outside. There is no one on Amelia's street, no one outside the ramshackle houses, none of the drunks or the kids or the cops who stop by infrequently. Amelia is amazed as the old man finds handholds on the wall of the house, hefting himself, his bag, and Amelia, over and over, up the side of the little house. Amelia holds on tightly to his thick neck until they reach the roof. The old man's bulk warms her, so Amelia doesn't feel the cold, and she's comforted by his scent, one of pine trees and mint and the rough, pleasant tang of hard-working sweat.
On the roof are animals that Amelia has never seen. Tall and majestic, with antlers rising proudly to the night sky. They're strapped together, in a semi-circle so they can fit on the roof of her little house. At the end, they're harnessed to something, a thing Amelia has never seen in real life, but she recognizes from storybooks at her school.
The old man approaches the lead animal, and strokes him underneath his chin. The animal snorts, tossing his head a little, and then his nose starts to glow a bright, pleasant red. And as that glow washes over her, Amelia knows that it's true, it's all true, and that feeling she cannot name surges in her chest, and Amelia cries, she cries for the first time in years. She feels alive.
Amelia cries, and the old man cradles her to his broad chest, and takes her to the back of the herd. He sets her down in the snow, for just a moment, he assures her, and he climbs in, setting his bag in the back. He reaches over the side, then, and lifts her into the seat beside him. He pulls a red blanket from the floor, and drapes it around her shoulders, wraps it around her chest and legs. He asks if she's warm and snug. She nods. He nods back, and his smile is happy, now, completely joyous. He lifts leather reins in his hand, and cries out in a deep, booming voice.
And then they're gone.
The policeman isn't yet thirty, but his frown speaks the truth: his life is defined by frustration. He looks around at the news trucks, and the hideously screeching woman on the front lawn, and the grim-faced man beside her, and he thinks they're liars. He wonders, briefly, if they killed the missing girl, their daughter. And then, bitterly, he knows that even if they didn't, they'll milk this for everything it's worth, and in the end, use her disappearance as another excuse for their failed lives. This doesn't surprise him.
The policeman knows these people. He knows the father from countless drunken skirmishes, but even if he didn't, he'd still know him. He sees them all the time, with different faces and different names, but they're all the same. He's only walked this beat for two years, and he hopes that he makes his detective exam, so he can get out of here. If he were a better-educated man, he'd call this beat soul-destroying. But for the feeling this place gives him, he has no name.
The mother is begging to the cameras, as the policeman walks around the crowd, begging for her baby to be brought back, and the policeman grunts to himself. He's bitter, the policeman, and cynical, but he's a good cop. He talked to the neighbors and the girl's teachers long before the circus started, and he knows what her parents are. No charges have ever been filed against them, no official reports made, but he knows. And the knowing gives him that feeling he cannot name. A feeling so familiar, it's routine.
Feeling or no, he's a cop. And regardless of the truth, if he can find the girl, he must. If he has to bring her back here, he will. And hate himself for it. So feeling or no, he walks around, on the odd chance that he might find a clue. Maybe she just ran away, he thinks. Maybe he'll find her, and she'll have some mark, something he can use to get her out of here.
And into what? The policeman knows what. A system that lost her in the first place. She'd be shuffled off into group home after group home, already broken by her life, destined to continue the cycle herself. That's another part of the routine.
The policeman sighs, bitterly, and then he sees it.
A massive footprint, far bigger than the father's, not yet washed away by the melting snow, right at the base of the little house. He's had detective training, and he knows what the depth of the print means. Whoever made it was supporting his weight on one foot.
The policeman looks up with dawning disbelief at the side of the house, at the climb. There's no way, he thinks. Just. No. Way. He looks back at the crowd, but nobody notices the beat cop standing by the house. He walks around the back of the house. Maybe if he cracks this one, he thinks, he can get off this beat. Be a hero. He laughs to himself, quietly. And his laugh is bitter.
But he finds a rickety ladder in the backyard, and leans it against the back of the house. The real detectives have already been here, so he's alone, everyone else watching the circus. He climbs to the roof, silently rebuking himself as he goes. Just. No. Way.
He reaches the roof, pulling himself to his feet with no small amount of relief...and then he looks down.
The policeman hunted with his dad in a smaller town, in a kinder place, in a better time. He misses his father most at Christmas, and is glad to work today, to distract him from his grief.
It's his dad who would be proud of his skill, today, as he kneels on the old roof, and brushes his fingertips over the hoofprints, fading as the snow melts. He marks, with a precision that will solve countless crimes in years to come, the deep, straight tracks of metal rails. He follows them back to where they started, and there, he finds a single pair of tiny footprints, and another pair of larger ones. The rest have been washed away by melting snow, but he's sure if they hadn't been, they would have led here from the front of the house. From that impossible climb.
The policeman, with growing awe, follows the trail from back to front, to where the hoofprints disappear off the edge of the roof. He stands, mouth open, eyes wide. He looks down from the roof at the circus, at the grimy little neighborhood, back to the tracks in the snow, and then up into the morning sky.
The policeman feels something, then, like happiness, and sadness, like everything might be okay, and he knows it's true, it's all true, every bit of it. He feels it surge in his chest, and for the first time in years, for the first time since the cancer ate his dad alive, his eyes moisten with tears.
The policeman knows what to call this feeling.
For this feeling, he has a name.
He calls it hope.
All content ©2015 Melody Wolfe. All rights reserved.